One of my most important pre-New Years resolutions has been "live more, analyze less," and I've been doing a terrific job of that. However, a few things I've read this morning, along with recent experiences, have led to some ideas I'd like to toss out into the metaversal ocean. This is the first of three posts on the evolution of identity and meaning in digital worlds.
Gweneth Llewellyn once again has made an important contribution to our understanding of digital worlds with her latest essay, "Post-Immersionism." While I could definitely disagree with some of the details of her presentation (for anyone interested in identity in World of Warcraft, frex, I'd suggest the *fantastic* anthology Digital Culture, Play and Identity: A World of Warcraft Reader - and there may be a fourth post, Why WoW Matters), she makes a number of points which should transform our understanding of digital identity. Please go read it: this essay is threatening to become too long, even without a summary of Gwen's article. I'll refer back to specific points of hers, but you'll be losing out on some valuable insights if you skip it.
The Source of Meaning
The key difference between immersionists and augmentationists is in the source of meaning. Both groups see value in the other realm: nobody in the discussion thinks that digital spaces are worthless; not even the most extreme immersionist thinks the atomic world is worthless. Where we differ is over what we think "really matters:" what is real (true, honest) and what matters (is legitimate, worthwhile, broadly accepted).
For us immersionists, reality and legitimacy are generated in the digital world. The last two pages of Gwen's essay paint a vivid picture of what that looks like: it's a wonderful example and well worth reading, even if the six pages of the whole thing is too long for you.
For augmentationists, of course, reality and legitimacy are generated in the atomic world (sort of, with pre-1970 technology being considered atomic and legitimate, even if it's really not conceptually different from digital worlds - a delicious point Gwen makes).
One of the Lascaux cave paintings of the digital world is a cartoon from New Yorker magazine. Two dogs are sitting in front of a computer; one says to the other, "on the internet, nobody knows you're a dog."
Augmentationists, or as I might less charitably call them, atomic supremacists, see that as deception. Why? Reality and legitimacy are created in the atomic world. If no one in the digital world knows your atomic nature, what you've created in the digital world is the opposite of reality and legitimacy: fraud.
Right there you have the source of conflict between augmentationists and immersionists. The immersionist says "who I am and what I do in the digital world is real and legitmate." The agumentationist looks at that and says, "no, what you are doing there is unreal and deceptive." They may see it as fraudulent, or alternatively as self-deceptive: that's the moral of the infamous Wall Street Journal article that's being made into a movie. The article is entitled "Is This Man Cheating on His Wife?" which of course frames the question as one of reality and legitimacy - is this real, and is it a moral wrong?
The moral is, "reality and legitimacy are monopolies of the atomic world, and to think otherwise is bad and wrong." Of course, coming from WSJ, the most "real and legitimate"voice of assertions of value in digital intangibles, is richly ironic - but that goes to Gwen's point that for "atomic" you should read "atomic plus intangibles in general use around 1970." (Explain to me - no, to yourself - how your stock portfolio is more real and legitimate than your SL inventory)
I'm not going to argue against the augmentationist view directly. There really is no logical counter-argument: what you take to be the source of reality and legitimacy is a first principle, a matter of faith. What I'm going to do here is to use a few examples to show you that seeing the atomic world as the source of legitimacy hampers effective use of digital spaces.
What I'd hope for is that anyone reading this who's on the augmentationist end of the spectrum comes away questioning their assumptions. For many augmentationists, especially those new to digital worlds, they simply haven't thought about this stuff: for their whole lives, there was one world, the atomic, and by default it was the source of reality and legitimacy. I'm hoping this essay will encourage a shift of perspective for a moment, by asking "what if you looked at it through the other end?"
I'm not looking to change minds. What I'd like to see is a considered augmentationism, one that comes from critically examining assumptions and that acknowledges that there is another possible, coherent - maybe even legitimate - perspective.
I'm going to discuss two stories in later posts (I'd do this in one big Gwen-style blast, but I have too many things to do today to write that much in one stretch, and I'd like to get something posted quickly): one of my own in The Negative Value of Credentialling, and one from a blog post today by Landsend Korobase (hat tip to the invaluable Malburns Writer for the link) on that perennial favorite augmentationist/immersionist flashpoint, gender, in Identity and the Old Country.
Come back soon; hopefully I'll get both posts done this weekend.